A different storm brews

Here's a twist: A lot of Marylanders are angry at a utility — and it isn't Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. This time, public ire is directed at Pepco, which provides power for most residents of Montgomery and Prince George's counties as well as the District of Columbia. But the fixes elected officials are talking about could have a huge impact on the Baltimore area.

Reliability, not rates, is what has many of Pepco's 778,000 residential customers seething. Large numbers of them lost power in a violent July 25 storm and didn't have it again for days. And that was merely the latest straw for peeved customers; Pepco's reliability ranks among the worst in the region, a point even company officials have acknowledged.

Pepco customers could scarcely be blamed for being upset about all this. In recent public hearings, it's become clear that the company hasn't done an adequate job of trimming trees around utility lines or been aggressive in its response to outages. By the company's own account, it didn't plan for the July storm or bring in outside crews to help fast enough.

Such a failure would suggest a standard course of action: Intervention by the Maryland Public Service Commission, which is, among other things, supposed to monitor the reliability of electrical service in this state. And the PSC has already jumped in, conducting public hearings and mulling what regulatory action may be needed.

But that's not good enough for some elected officials who have already begun proposing more sweeping reforms. The proposals, however well-intentioned, pose a risk of unintended consequences as they are directed at all Maryland utilities and not just Pepco.

Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he wants the PSC to set a statewide reliability standard. Some would like to see those who fail to meet such a standard slapped with fines. Others have proposed a "power failure rebate" to be paid by utility shareholders to those who lose power.

The danger of such approaches is that their cost is inevitably borne by ratepayers. Utilities facing financial penalties may hire more full-time emergency crews, the cost of which will simply be passed along. Meanwhile, a one-size-fits-all measurement might not work when it compares service areas that vary wildly (one region may have far greater risk of service interruptions from downed trees, for instance, while another has more underground lines).

Do BGE customers really want to pay higher rates? That may be less of an issue in places like Montgomery County, Maryland's most affluent subdivision, but a lot of Baltimoreans are satisfied with the quality of service and would rather see costs kept down. That's why the PSC ought to do what it does now — regulate this complicated issue utility by utility, without political interference.

Annapolis has been schizophrenic enough about utility regulation in recent years — with some lawmakers wanting them to be re-regulated while others seek further deregulation — that the General Assembly scarcely needs to add another layer of rulemaking to the mix. In an election year, politicians want to be activists and tend to spew a lot of hot air. One can only hope they take a cue from Hurricane Earl and leave beleaguered BGE customers alone.

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